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Inviting Ease with the Alexander Technique

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ILLUSTRATION BY ANNIE INTERNICOLA
  • Illustration by Annie Internicola

To have a body is to experience physical pain one day: There is no getting around that pesky inevitability. The longer we have our bodies, the greater the chances are that aches and pains will begin to inhabit our limbs and joints like unwelcome guests. Blame it on wear and tear. Blame it on entropy. Blame it in on the curses and blessings of having a physical body.

For Katiellen Madden of High Falls, the time came two years ago when she could no longer manage the neck pain that had dogged her for a good part of her adult life. She had been a gymnast as a kid, and in her grownup career as a special education teacher she had trucked a few 10-pound teacher's manuals back and forth to school each day, tugging on her shoulders. The long-term effect was pain that intruded into daily activities like driving or gardening, or making art at the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, where she worked in printmaking and papermaking. It also interrupted a good night's sleep. "I was constantly in and out of physical therapy," says Madden, 66. "It would help for a little while and then the pain would come back. One year, I looked at how much money I had spent on Advil and I was shocked. I also kept hearing about the bad effect that Advil can have on the kidneys."

Around this time, Madden stumbled upon an article that recommended either acupuncture or the Alexander Technique as a way to find freedom from pain. "I'm terrified of needles, so acupuncture was out," she says. Through a center in New York City, she found Alexander Technique instructor Allyna Steinberg, who teaches private and group lessons in Manhattan and Stone Ridge. Steinberg met with her for one-on-one sessions, gently guiding Madden through ways to realign her body and release tension in her neck. "After the first session, my range of motion increased dramatically and a lot of the pain was gone," she marvels. Through subtle tweaks to her everyday movements, and the occasional hands-on adjustment from Steinberg, she was teaching her body to let go of old patterns and to move as it was meant to do. "After less than six sessions with Allyna, I wasn't having any more pain in my neck at all." Without popping an Advil, she was able to sleep through the night, and she enjoyed the bonus effect of feeling more relaxed in general. "I'm not a great student," she demurs. "I just really love the process and I love the results. I keep telling my friends all about it."

A Movement Modality with Ripple Effects

If there's one thing you might have noticed about the Alexander Technique—a century-old practice that teaches people to release muscular tension and adverse habits of movement and thinking—it's that those who have benefited from the method are downright evangelical about it. Research studies to prove (or disprove) its effectiveness are not robust, although a systematic review of 18 clinical trials, published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice in 2012, found strong evidence that the Alexander Technique can relieve chronic back pain, moderate evidence that it helps with Parkinson's-associated disability, and preliminary evidence that it may be effective for general chronic pain, posture, speech impediments, respiratory function, and improvements in balance for the elderly. Many of the technique's most ardent fans are performing artists and musicians; its Australian founder, Fredrick Matthias Alexander, was a Shakespearean actor himself.

A little over 100 years ago, Alexander developed the technique as a way to cure himself of a problem that was ruining his career: He kept losing his voice onstage. With no medical reason for his intermittent voiceless episodes, Alexander found that he could get his speech back by recognizing and releasing habitual reactions in his movements, and eventually in his thoughts as well. Using multiple mirrors (Alexander was a patient man), he observed himself speaking and noticed a habit of drawing his head back and down when he spoke. He recognized this as a startle response, common in most animals when faced with negative stimuli. Through practice, Alexander learned to release that startle response, inviting his neck to be free and his head to balance in alignment with his spine. In the process he freed his voice to emerge full-throttle on the stage. In essence, he developed a mind-body healing modality before such an approach came into vogue. Today, with mind-body therapies everywhere, the Alexander Technique is having its moment in the sun.

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